While much of the global warming conversation rightly focuses on reducing our carbon footprint, the reality is that even if we were to immediately cease emissions, we would still face climate change into the next millennium. In Finding Higher Ground,Amy Seidl takes the uniquely positive-yet realistic-position that humans and animals can adapt and persist despite these changes.
Drawing on an emerging body of scientific research, Seidl brings us stories of adaptation from the natural world and from human communities. She offers examples of how plants, insects, birds, and mammals are already adapting both behaviorally and genetically. Within ten years, one plant species in a drought-stricken area has evolved to fit its life cycle into the shorter growing season. Red squirrels are breeding earlier to take advantage of the food supplied by an earlier spring. And some birds are migrating shorter distances, or not at all, as their northern habitats become milder.
While some species will be unable to adapt to new conditions quickly enough to survive, Seidl argues that those that do can show us how to increase our own capacity for resilience. She tells of a young farmer experimenting with adaptive strategies for local crops, architects using biomimicry to design buildings that actually contribute to their surrounding ecosystems, and the establishment of decentralized and renewable energy banks. While Seidl admits that these efforts alone won't change the world, she hopes that taken together they can form the basis for a new, revolutionary set of ideas to live by, much like the efforts that brought about abolition, women's suffrage, and the eight-hour workday.
In looking at climate change as an opportunity to establish new cultural norms, Seidl's perspective inspires readers to move beyond loss and offers a refreshing call to evolve.
In honor of Earth Day, we asked a handful of our environmental writers two questions: 1. What is today’s most pressing environmental issue? and 2. What’s one small thing people can do to make a big difference? Here are their answers.
1. What is today’s most pressing environmental issue? The global freshwater crisis – because it’s life-threatening to people and children right now. A billion people on our planet still do not have safe, clean drinking water. More than 2.2 million people die each year from diseases associated with that lack of access.
2. What’s one small thing people can do to make a big difference? My book Blue Revolution deals with freshwater woes in America, which are not comparable to the global crisis that kills thousands of children a day. But its call for a water ethic is pivotal locally, nationally and globally: Learn about freshwater resources and teach a young person – or a classroom full – about water and the consequences of over-extraction and pollution, both in their own community and elsewhere in the world. Inspiring such an ethic in the next generation – something lacking in our own – could give water the sense of urgency it deserves.
1. What is today’s most pressing environmental issue? Fixing our broken political system. Every worthy environmental cause-- from local and regional issues like access to healthy food and clean water, to pressing global concerns like climate change-- is running up against a government that's simply not working for its people anymore.
To crib from an old bluegrass tune, government may not be broke, but it's badly bent. The federal government claims to be spending better than a billion dollars a year to restore endangered salmon. What they're doing instead, with the help of Senators, Congressmen, lobbyists, bureaucrats and an army of sycophants is maintaining fat subsidies for industry while holding meaningful salmon recovery at bay.
The environmental movement in forty years has had some amazing successes. But most of the ecological indicators by which we gage the health of the planet tell us we're in deep trouble. A few battles were won, but we're losing the war. The best move for environmentalists would be to begin the work of forming broad coalitions with other "civil society" advocates of every stripe, and begin the work of returning us to the idea that government of, for and by the people should be central to solutions, and possibly our most effective means to averting a host of impending disasters.
2. What’s one small thing people can do to make a big difference? Become engaged in politics in some way beyond just voting. Mark Twain said if voting made any real difference they wouldn't let us do it. So raise hell in church committees, school boards, and state houses. It's likely our last best hope.
1. What is today’s most pressing environmental issue? Humanity’s assault on our planet's life support systems. That's the carbon cycle, which we disrupting by burning carbon that has been stored underground by nature over millions of years in fossil fuels. By releasing this carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide we are triggering both global warming and other big effects down the track like acidifying and deoxygenating the oceans. And the nitrogen cycle. We are fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere to make chemical fertilizers that eventually wash into rivers and oceans, causing more deoxygenation and dead zones. These are major changes to the basic chemistry of our planet. We still have very little idea where they will lead. Climate change may just be the start. A dead ocean may be the ultimate ecological horror. It would kill the planet.
2. What’s one small thing people can do to make a big difference? Slow down. Take your foot off the gas. Take time and care. Think. Smile. Grow old gracefully.
1. What is today’s most pressing environmental issue? It is difficult to choose a single pressing issue; there are many that compete for the top spot. But all are linked by what I see as a crux in environmental problem-solving: a reliance on linear versus systemic thinking.
We live in an increasingly complex world, one that is experiencing the effects of global climate change, population growth, fisheries depletion and ocean acidification, and peak oil (among others) at the same time. When considered individually they appear monumental but it is actually their simultaneity that poses the greatest threat. This is why we must address environmental problems from a systems perspective. Each of these problems is influenced by and influences others; therefore they should be seen as part of a whole, complex system. When we try to solve one issue at a time, we miss the relationships among them, and the ability to optimize our efforts.
2. What’s one small thing people can do to make a big difference? Small and big are relative terms. That said, plant a garden and spend more time in wild nature.
Today's post is form Amy Seidl, author of
Early Spring: An Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World. Seidl has taught in the environmental
studies programs at Middlebury College and the University of Vermont.
She is currently a research scholar at Middlebury and is at work on a book about adapting to climate change. She lives with her family in
Huntington, Vermont, in a solar- and wind-powered home.
Before the holidays, I attended the Copenhagen Climate talks, if virtually. From my Vermont office I fed hourly on an array of media: streaming video, updated reports, panel discussions, protest vigils, and live feeds from the delegates' plenaries. It was as good as being there minus the jet lag and Danish hospitality.
What's clear from my desk-chair participation is this: the connection between the final accord and contemporary climate science is almost nil, it's not even a gap: it's a gulf.
The scientific consensus is that 350 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide is the safe upper limit to ensure life on the planet. Simple really. By making 350 our target, nations commit to collectively reverse the upward trend of emissions and safeguard the planet–and human and nonhuman life–against extreme and perilous effects, a rational and scientifically-grounded approach.
In contrast, the outcome at Copenhagen was that nations "took note"–a kind of formal nod–of an agreement in which no emissions targets are listed, no time tables are set and, while two degree Celsius increase in temperature is listed as a goal, no one is held legally accountable to it. Given the impotence of this pact, we can assume that the trajectory of annual increases in atmospheric carbon will continue. Indeed, the U.S.'s offer to reduce emissions by a mere 4% by 2020–when a 40% decline is necessary to achieve 350 ppm–is further evidence of our lack of belief in the science. The gap expands.